Human cystatin C is a low molecular weight protein which has been proposed as a better marker of glomerular filtration rate than creatinine. To be able to interpret results obtained in different patient populations it is necessary to define cystatin C reference values. We measured serum concentration of cystatin C in 1223 subjects using a particle-enhanced nephelometric assay. Subjects were aged 4 to 79 years and were selected among apparently healthy individuals who came to the Centre for Preventive Medicine in Vandoeuvre-Lès-Nancy, France. We observed a Gaussian distribution of cystatin C concentration in serum. We did not find any effect of age or gender in children, hormonal status in women (puberty, menopause, oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy) or alcohol intake. Cystatin C concentration was slightly lower in female than in male adults below the age of 60 years. Cystatin C levels significantly increased above the age of 60 in both males and females, probably due to physiological aging of renal function. No other significant differences were observed between males and females. Using multiple regression analysis, moderate correlations were observed between body mass index and cystatin C, and between smoking and cystatin C, but these were not biologically significant. According to the literature, only methylprednisolone and cyclosporin A increased and decreased cystatin C levels, respectively. The reference values for cystatin C obtained in a carefully selected population were 0.75+/-0.089 mg/l for children aged 4-19 years, 0.74+/-0.100 mg/l for males and 0.65+/-0.085 mg/l for females (aged 20-59 years), and 0.83+/-0.103 mg/l for older individuals (> or =60 years).